Chicago Tribune: In a single gesture, Zhao Ziyang brought a brief suggestion of humanity to a cold regime that concerned itself with little other than self-preservation.
Deep into the night on May 19, 1989, the Chinese Communist Party leader walked outside to talk to students occupying the makeshift democracy campground that was Tiananmen Square.
Amid all the litter and sleeping bags, student leaders had started arguing among themselves about whether it was time to pack up and go home. They had already waged an astonishing, million-person campaign for greater intellectual openness, more press freedoms and less corruption -- so effective it threw the central government into temporary disarray.
At the same time, inside the adjacent Great Hall of the People, Chinese government leaders had begun plotting their violent crackdown on those protesters to regain control of the square and the country.
An emotion-wrought Zhao that night pleaded with the hunger strikers to go home, no doubt aware of the fate that awaited them. They didn't listen. Hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- paid for that judgment with their lives as the government declared martial law, rolled in the tanks and opened fire on the streets.
For courageously supporting the students, Zhao had killed his political career. He was stripped of his titles and spent the next 15 years under house arrest. His estimable achievements, among them being the first Chinese leader to call for elections offering a choice of candidates, from the village level on up to the Central Committee, were erased from official memory banks.
His lifelong values -- in transparency, open dialogue, progressive economic policies, and a reformed socialism -- were quietly hidden away and replaced by traditional hard-line thinking.
His death early Monday was announced by the state media in a single sentence.
Chinese leaders should tread gingerly as they figure out how to treat Zhao's memory. Ignore it, and risk sparking dissent. Government secrecy in China has led to a well-oiled word-of-mouth network that would rival any American high-tech networking system.
Hold a state funeral for a rival political thinker, and risk sending confusing messages. Also risk the kinds of uprisings that have followed the deaths of other popular state officials. Gatherings at Tiananmen Square in the wake of the death of Hu Yaobang, who preceded Zhao as party leader, were what gave way to the student democracy movement in 1989.
The Chinese government wants to reap the financial benefits of economic openness but continues to exert widespread control over politics and the press. It can't have it all ways forever.